What is Agile, and why is it so different in every conversation?

Date: 
Wednesday, August 9, 2017
What is Agile? This is a big question to answer and this article intends to give some structure around what can be meant by Agile when it is referred to. Given the liberal usage of the term in business environments it can often be unclear what it actually refers to, leading to it being dismissed as a buzzword with no real substance behind it.


Agile, when referred to specifically for delivery or by ‘evangelists’, most commonly refers to one of a set of over 30 methodologies. When talked about more loosely, it can be referred to as ‘agility’, an ‘agile mindset’ or even ‘Bimodal’.

Agile Methodologies

Agile methodologies range from systems focused on improving individual and team efficiency (e.g. XP1), managing product development within a small team environment (e.g. Scrum2, DSDM3 or Kanban4), within a larger group of teams (e.g. LeSS5), and even up to the portfolio and enterprise level (e.g. SAFe6).

Agility

Agility is attempting to bring more flexibility and efficiency to an organization, often in their traditional delivery environment. This is achieved by implementing tools and techniques taken from Agile methodologies. For example, adding sprints in a traditional environment is a Hybrid approach, a type of agility. This can be applied across the organisations, from delivery environments (e.g. in an Agile PMO), marketing, to increasing efficiencies at the exec level.

Agile Mindset

An agile mindset takes the principles which broadly underpin Agile methodologies and applies them, whether they are in an Agile delivery environment or not. The principles broadly referred to are ‘continuous improvement’, ‘collaboration’, ‘adapting to change’, ‘focusing on delivering value’, ‘respect’ and ‘taking ownership of the delivery’.

Bimodal

‘Bimodal’ is a term from Gartner7, which refers to an environment which contains both traditionally managed projects and programs, as well as Agile ones. It also covers how to manage the interface between them. This is an important challenge for businesses to handle, and whilst it is not Agile it often accompanies the conversation and can be confused. 
 

Illustration showing at what level various Agile methodologies and agile approaches are most likely to be utilized.
 
How do you know which ‘Agile’ is right?

Given the range of topics it covers it becomes clear why there is so much confusion surrounding it. To ensure understanding and clarity of communication when referring to ‘Agile’, the context must be clearly defined to ensure all is understood. There are sufficient differences in terminology and approaches between the methodologies and approaches to introduce confusion through different meanings. As an example, the ‘Epic’ referred to in Scrum is different to the ‘Epic’ referred to in SAFe.

To understand the approach that is being referenced you must know the environment it is used in (what level of PPM structure, or even whether it’s in a delivery structure) and how it is being applied. To define the optimal approach, the environment and application must still be understood, with the addition of any organizational constraints that apply.

It should now be clear what ‘Agile’ can refer to, and how to work out which ‘Agile’ is being spoken about. To fully understand how to best utilise Agile in an end to end context however, a deeper understanding is needed of each of the areas to devise the best approach.
 
References:
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extreme_programming
2 https://www.scrum.org/resources/what-is-scrum
3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_systems_development_method
4 https://www.versionone.com/what-is-kanban/
5 https://less.works/
6 http://www.scaledagileframework.com/
7 www.gartner.com/it-glossary/bimodal

 


Ben Beavers is an Agile delivery specialist and Senior Consultant at Pcubed, based in their London office. He is a qualified SAFe SPC4 consultant and leads Pcubed’s global Agile Resource Community. He specializes in implementing and enhancing Agile deliveries, and his most recent project has seen him working with global teams in big data, analytics and reporting tools at a tier 1 investment bank.


For further information on this article and Pcubed, please email info@pcubed.com.